For me, savoring the peak of fall color on the eastern slopes of the North Cascades is like a trip to Mecca or the Wailing Wall. A religious observance.
At this special time of year, the mountains are ablaze with the orange glow of larches, those unique and exceptionally beautiful deciduous conifers that pepper the high country with luminous color. These trees only grow on the drier, east side of the range, generally at 6500 feet or higher. Many residents of Western Washington have never seen one.
I’ve been a larch aficionado for decades and make it a point to never miss the glory season, which generally peaks during the first weeks of October. The days allocated to a backpacking trip to Twisp Pass and environs (with the anticipation of grand larchery) have been emblazoned across my Outlook calendar in capital letters for many months.
A few days before departure, it begins to rain. And rain. We leave Bellingham in a downpour. In the Methow, the rain turns to snow. We are mostly undaunted. We establish a camp, sit beneath the tarp by a smoky fire and remain fiercely optimistic.
In the morning our optimism pays off as we leave the dusty Subaru at the trailhead at the end of the Twisp River Road and head up the trail towards Twisp Pass beneath radiant blue skies, stippled with white mashed-potato clouds. We pass through a lustrous aspen forest, wet from the recent rains – yellow, orange and umber: the colors of Halloween. After two miles of easy hiking, a deluxe foot log (railing and everything) provides passage across the North Fork of the Twisp River and the trail steepens as it ascends the rocky slopes of Lincoln Butte. In one especially dramatic stretch, the trail has been dynamited out of the cliff itself. It is difficult to imagine that in the 1890’s this was the proposed route for a road across the North Cascades before cooler heads prevailed. The road, now the North Cascades Highway, was eventually constructed over Washington Pass.
The view down over the wild, pristine valley and the headwaters of the Twisp River is sublime. The summit ridges are dusted with new snow.
We climb some more through autumn gardens of crimson and magenta. As we move higher, small patches of snow accentuate the vivid colors of the meadows and by the time we reach Twisp Pass and the Entering North Cascades National Park sign, a cold wind is blowing. We drop our packs and add warm layers.
In theory, there’s a tarn up the ridge in the rubble fields below Twisp Peak and after a half-hour of climbing around on the convoluted ridge (lynx tracks in the snow!) we find it, cradled among the rocks. Water assured, we return for our packs and establish a camp on a bare promontory with a fine view of the surrounding wonderlands including a million dollar view of Mt. Logan, the highest peak in North Cascades National Park, resplendent against a sunset the color of a Mahler Symphony. Far below, Dagger Lake disappears in the shadows of evening.
Stars dance and a nearly-full moon rises, bathing the mountains in luminous milky light. Ice begins to form in our water bottles.
Dawn: Golden light illuminates the larch-studded peaks and warms our cold bones as we eat our porridge and savor the sublime surroundings. Filled with anticpation, we stuff our day packs for the day’s explorations and make our way back to the pass where we locate the unmarked trail that leads to Stiletto Lake, climbing still higher on the flanks of Lincoln Butte. The boot-beaten path is delightful, making its way through beautiful meadows—ablaze with fall color—and elegant stands of Engelmann spruce below an azure sky. Larches begin to appear in the meadows, first isolated trees, stalwart against the sky, then small stands. Boulders are scattered everywhere—carved in fantastic shapes and patterns, adorned with hieroglyphics of lichen. A rambunctious little creek flows down from parts unknown, splashing and gurgling in the sunshine. Such joy!
We wander upward, following the path to enlightenment. As you’d expect on such a path, the grade stiffens.
We encounter a lone backpacker, the first person we’ve seen since the parking lot (and actually, there was nobody there either), headed for a secret, lonely basin, she says, with water for camping. She climbs up the rubble, a broad smile on her face, and disappears among the rocks. We press on, warm now in the heat of mid-day.
A final climb takes us to the polished shores of Stiletto Lake, a scene from the Lord of the Rings in its amphitheatre beneath the soaring cliffs of Stiletto Peak. The lake’s foreshore is an alpine dream—larches and rock gardens, lush and inviting, all reflected in the still waters of the crystalline lake. Music is provided by a stream that drains the lake, tumbling over ledges and stone steps carved into delicate terraces by the glaciers that shaped these highlands in eons past.
From the far side of the lake – where the angle of repose is obviously still being established—comes the basso profundo of rockfall. An invitation to climb higher, towards shining summits. But not for today.
We descend back to camp through meadows aglow with golden light, the dark peaks back-lit by the benevolent sun, and arrive back at camp, weary and jubilant, as the last of the evening light bids adieu.
Trail Distance: 8.5 miles RT (Twisp Pass), 12 miles RT (Stiletto Lake)
Elevation Gain: 2300 feet (Twisp Pass), 3500 feet (Stiletto Lake)
Access: From WA-20 near Twisp, turn west on the Twisp River Road and follow it 24 miles to near its end. The trailhead is on the right, just before the road ends in a campground.
Permits: A Northwest Forest Pass is necessary to park at the trailhead. Camping within North Cascades National Park requires a backcountry permit, available far, far away in Marblemount.
Backpacking Camps: You’ll find many excellent camps tucked into the sub-alpine meadows around Twisp Pass and in the vicinity of Stiletto Lake. Practice strict no-trace camping ethics.